Writers and readers alike have always used literature, and especially fiction, as a way to help make sense of too-complicated truths — so it was no surprise when the first novels about September 11, 2001 began appearing just a few short years after the terrorist attacks themselves, with more and more being written and published in the years since. And like any major event in a country’s history, it takes generations to understand exactly what happened, why it did, how it affected people on both a personal and a national level, and how to best move forward in a world irreversibly changed — fiction is just one of the many small things that help us do that. Now, as the United States approaches the 15-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed 2,996 people, injured over 6,000, toppled the Twin Towers of the New York City World Trade Center, and changed the trajectory of America’s relationship with the rest of the world, we’re looking at some of the novels that best tell the stories of what September 11 meant to Americans, and how the terrorist attacks disrupted everyday life for so many people, irreversibly and forever.
Here are eight novels about 9/11:
1. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus
One thing that’s true about all national and international tragedies is that they always come right in the middle of a lot of people’s personal tragedies as well. At least, that’s the case for Joyce and Marshall Harriman, the married couple at the center of Ken Kalfus’s novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. Embattled in a volatile divorce, both are morbidly relived when they think the other has been killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks — only to arrive home that day realizing that while they both should have died (Marshall worked in one of the towers and Joyce was supposed to be on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon) neither ended up where they were supposed to be that day and have, instead, survived. But narrowly escaping death doesn’t transform these characters and their relationship nearly as much as you’d think — which actually makes them, while awful, disturbingly relatable.
2. Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour
The debut novel by Iranian-American writer Porochista Khakpour, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, tells the story of an Iranian immigrant family living in the United States in the years before September 11, 2001. And the terrorist attacks are not the central point of Khakpour’s story — although this novel is still very much informed by 9/11. Instead, the attacks on New York are an event that further disrupts the already messy and imperfect life of twenty-something-year-old Xerxes Adam, who moved to New York City to get away from the parents he hasn’t spoken to in years, and who finds himself forced to reconnect with them — if only to say he’s safe — in the wake of the attacks.
3. American Widow by Alissa Torres and Sungyoon Choi
Though this graphic novel is not fiction — it’s a memoir — it belongs on this list because it so dazzlingly, heartbreakingly explores what happens when a personal tragedy and a national tragedy intertwine, thrusting its victims into a spotlight under which their mourning is played out across a national stage, and their role in it all is immediately defined by public consensus. Memoirist Alissa Torres was the pregnant wife of a man named Eddie, who began his first day of work in the Cantor Fitzgerald offices of the North Tower on September 10, 2001. The next day, Cantor Fitzgerald would lose more of its employees (658 of its 960) in the terrorist attacks than any of the other World Trade Center companies, the New York City Police Department, the New York City Fire Department, and the United States Department of Defense, a tragedy that instantly transformed Torres into a “9/11 widow.”
4. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
The terrorist attacks of September 11 exist on the periphery of this novel, but wholly inform the plot nonetheless. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland introduces readers to a man named Hans, a New York City banker and immigrant from the Netherlands, who witnesses the events of 9/11 and the numbing unmoored days immediately following from the perspective of someone who already felt lost in the city, and who is now observing its heartbreak as an outsider. This novel also explores the myriad ways the idea of the “American dream” was turned utterly upside-down in the wake of the attacks — a cataclysm from which that dream perhaps still hasn’t recovered.
5. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo’s Falling Man explores 9/11 from the vantage point of three small lives that were profoundly transformed by the attacks—a lawyer named Keith, who survived the terrorist attacks and reunited with his then-estranged wife, although both will soon realize Keith is not the same man he was before the attacks; Lianne, Keith’s wife who tries, but largely fails, to understand not only the man Keith was, but the man he has become; and the couple’s young son Justin, who has developed a disconcerting obsession with airplanes in the aftermath of the attacks. And then there’s the Falling Man, a NYC performance artist who jumps from the city’s buildings dressed in a business suit, dangling upside-down tethered in mid-air, as a disturbing reminder to everyone of those who jumped or fell from the towers.
6. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
Clarie Messud’s The Emperor’s Children tells the story of three privileged New York friends who are approaching their thirties — and the realization that their lives might not be all they’d anticipated — in the weeks and months leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then September 11 happens, and each of the trio finds themselves responding differently and unexpectedly to the events. Like any New Yorker who was impacted by that day in American history, there is a “before” and an “after”, and life spins out in both directions.
7. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Another novel that explores the 9/11 terrorist attacks without focusing on them exclusively, Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows takes the long view of acts of violence that irreversibly transform the world, beginning with the ground-level experience of surviving the August 9, 1945 bombing of Nagasaki and ending in post-9/11 New York City. Her characters are equal parts devastated and hopeful, destructive and resilient; they come from cultures as diverse and fractured as Japan and Germany, India and Pakistan, the United States and Afghanistan; and each of their lives are deeply transformed by the destruction being enacted on the global stage.
8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
This novel reads to me as a bit of a love story for New York City, written in the wake of an event that hoped to destroy it forever. Readers of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will fall in love with the brilliant, adventurous, heartbreaking Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy who dives head-first into a mysterious and sentimental treasure hunt after his father is killed on September 11, inspired by a key he found hidden in his father’s closet, that he believes was meant for him. Foer takes readers across New York City and back, as Oskar follows one clue after another, in hopes of somehow journeying closer to the father — and perhaps also the version of New York City — that he's lost forever.